On this day January 27: About Alexander Brown’s execution

Alexander Brown december 27

Sunday, December 27 1828, the Sydney Monitor reported on the executions of seven felons the previous Monday. Among them, Alexander Brown, the first person executed for homosexuality in New South Wales.

Alexander Brown was chief officer of the whaling ship Royal Sovereign. It arrived in Sydney a month before. The captain wanted to replenish supplies and rest the scurvy-afflicted crew after 16 months at sea.

On the ship’s arrival, the Sydney Gazette reported that the chief officer “has been under close confinement on board for the last five or six weeks, under charges of a very serious nature.”

Following investigations by magistrates, four of the crew faced a Supreme Court trial.

The defendants faced charges that they did feloniously, wickedly, and against the order of nature, commit and perpetrate the detestable and abominable vice of Buggery. To the great displeasure of Almighty God. To the great scandal and disgrace of man… blah, blah, blah.

“Brown is in Curtiss”

Depositions for the trial indicated that the alleged offences happened at sea during July.

James Burns, the ship’s steward, claimed that he once observed Brown lying motionless atop James Phillips, a young apprentice.

On another occasion, he watched Edward Curtiss follow Brown into his cabin. Burns peeked through a crack in Brown’s cabin door and saw the ‘boy’ on his hands and knees. He could also see Brown’s head and upper body behind the boy in motion backwards and forwards.

Burns alerted George Robinson, the third officer.

“Brown is in Curtiss.”

However, when Robinson looked through the crack, he could not see Brown, only Curtiss on his hands and knees.

The captain apparently held a shipboard hearing during August. Confronted with the allegations, Brown said, “There is three more as guilty as myself.”

Another apprentice (perhaps) named Richard Lyster admitted to sex with Brown. (Different documents variously name the said Lyster as Richard, Thomas or William and also as Lyster, Lister or Lester.)

James Phillips also confessed. In front of the assembled crew, the captain asked Phillips how far Brown’s penis penetrated him. The boy guessed three or four inches.

“Was it water that came from him?”

“No. It was thick, flabby stuff.”

The trials

On December 5, a trial in the NSW Supreme Court found Alexander Brown, Edward Curtiss, Richard Lyster, and James Phillips innocent of Buggery.

The Sydney Gazette described the evidence as weaker than that previously given before magistrates. Perhaps some of the witnesses balked at sending teenage sailors to their deaths.

No surviving records note the ages of the defendants. However, other than Brown, all were described as boys or apprentices. Apprentices in the English merchant navy were aged between 14 and 21.

Brown and Lyster still had one charge to answer. They went to trial on the further charge a week later, and this time, the jury found them guilty.

Chief Justice Francis Forbes passed sentence.

“You have been severally convicted of an unnatural crime, called sodomy, a crime which our laws hold in particular abhorrence…

“The law has made your offence capital. It is one at which nature shudders, and it therefore only remains for me to pass upon you that sentence which is affixed to the crime of which you were convicted.”


A week later, the Executive Council, presided over by Governor Ralph Darling, decided to pardon Lyster conditional on the lad immediately leaving the colony.

The administration set December 22 as the date of Alexander Brown’s execution. He would go to the gallows along with six youths and young men convicted of bushranging.

The Sydney Monitor

“Between the hours of nine and ten o’clock on Monday morning, seven unhappy culprits expiated by the forfeit of their lives, their crimes.”

The Sydney Monitor reported that only one of the seven entertained the hope of a reprieve – Alexander Brown.

“His former respectable situation in life encouraged him in this expectation.”

Richard Lyster’s pardon also seemed to raise Brown’s hopes. But Lyster was only a lad. Brown was a grown man. While no one disputed the consensual nature of the sex, most perceived Brown as the instigator. As chief officer, he was also in a position of authority over the apprentices. The Sydney Gazette informed readers that “the youth fell victim to the artifices of Browne.”

“His confidence did not forsake him until the very moment of the Sheriff reading his death warrant, a few minutes prior to his execution.”

At ten past nine, the condemned men exited their cells and joined a grim procession to the execution yard. Ministers of religion accompanied them on their last dreadful walk.

Ungovernable grief

“[The condemned] were all young men; the oldest apparently did not exceed thirty years of age, and the youngest, Welsh, was about sixteen. This lad cried much. Although his Rev Pastor endeavoured to wean his mind from such unavailing grief, yet he cast his eyes wistfully around him. When they met the view of anyone in the crowd, he would again burst into a fit of ungovernable grief.”

The poor kid was assisted up to the gallows.

At a quarter to ten, everything was ready. The condemned stood on the gallows platform, a trapdoor underfoot and nooses encircling their necks.

“The platform cleared, save those doomed for execution, the bolts underneath were drawn back. The drop gave way, and the criminals became suspended. After hanging the usual time, the bodies were lowered and put into shells for internment.”

Check out the depositions at Peter de Waal’s Unfit for Publication.

A Timeline of Australian LGBT history: 1727 – 1901.

Read more: December 26 <— On this day —> December 28

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1 Comment

  1. Robert French
    28 December 2021

    The major element in this case, I’ve long believed, is the fact that this was a case of sexual fraternisation between a naval officer and his subordinates, between ‘decks’, so to speak, and long condemned in naval law and lore. It is this that ensured Brown’s execution.

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